From almost the moment the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the medical-research establishment in Washington and London insisted that the virus had emerged naturally. Only conspiracy theorists, they said, would give credence to the idea that the virus had escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Now, a string of unearthed emails — the most recent being a batch viewed by the House Oversight and Reform Committee and referred to in its Jan. 11 letter — is making it seem increasingly likely that there was, in fact, a conspiracy, its aim being to suppress the notion that the virus had emerged from research funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), headed by Anthony Fauci.
The latest emails don’t prove such a conspiracy, but they make it more plausible for two reasons: because the expert virologists therein present such a strong case for thinking that the virus had lab-made features, and because of the wholly political reaction to this bombshell on the part of Francis Collins, then-director of the National Institutes of Health.
They agreed, until they didn’t
The story begins with a Jan. 31, 2020, email to Fauci from a group of four virologists led by Kristian G. Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute. The genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 had been published three weeks before, giving virologists their first look at the virus’ structure and possible origin.
Andersen reported to Fauci that “after discussions earlier today, Eddie, Bob, Mike and myself all find the genome inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory.” Eddie is Edward C. Holmes of the University of Sydney; Bob is Robert F. Garry of Tulane University; Mike is Michael Farzan at Scripps Research. In their unanimous view, the virus didn’t come from nature and may instead have escaped from a lab.
We knew this much already from emails obtained in June 2021 by a Freedom of Information Act request, as well as from the fact that a teleconference took place the following day (Feb. 1, 2020) to discuss the virologists’ conclusion.
But something remarkable happened at the conference, because within three days, Andersen was singing a different tune. In a Feb. 4, 2020, email, he derided ideas about a lab leak as “crackpot theories” that “relate to this virus being somehow engineered with intent and that is demonstrably not the case.”
Andersen and his colleagues then prepared an article, published on March 17, 2020, in the journal Nature Medicine, that declared flatly, “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” The article was highly influential, persuading the mainstream press not to investigate lab-leak theories.
That paper, along with an earlier letter in the British medical journal The Lancet, froze into silence any dissenting voices from the scientific community. The Lancet letter was signed by Jeremy Farrar, a powerful research administrator in London who convened the Feb. 1, 2020, teleconference.
What happened at the Feb. 1 teleconference to make the virologists change their minds so radically? It was impossible to tell from the emails released in June 2021 because almost every word in them was redacted. The House Oversight and Reform Committee was allowed to view the emails only in camera, meaning members weren’t given copies, but staffers are allowed to transcribe them by hand while viewing them.
A striking feature of the excerpts released in the committee’s Jan. 11, 2022, letter is that the virologists had little doubt that the virus bore the fingerprints of manipulation. The focus of their attention was a genetic element called a furin cleavage site.
This short snippet of genetic material is what makes the virus so infectious for human cells. Scientists sometimes add this element to laboratory viruses to make them more virulent, but in nature, viruses usually acquire runs of genetic material like this by swapping them with other members of their family.
The furin cleavage site in the COVID virus sticks out like a sore thumb because no other known member of its family — a group called Sarbecoviruses — possesses a furin cleavage site. So how did the virus acquire it?
A member of the Andersen group, Garry of Tulane University, remarks in the latest emails on the fact that the inserted furin cleavage site, a string of 12 units of RNA, the virus’ genetic material, was exactly the required length, a precision unusual in nature: “I just can’t figure out how this gets accomplished in nature … it’s stunning. Of course, in the lab it would be easy to generate the perfect 12 base insert that you wanted.”
Another member of the Andersen group, Farzan of Scripps Research, apparently felt much the same way. “He is bothered by the furin cleavage site and has a hard time explain[ing] that as an event outside the lab (though, there are possible ways in nature, but highly unlikely),” the House committee’s letter says of his remarks.
Farzan noted that viruses can acquire elements like furin cleavage sites when grown in cultures of human cells, so “instead of directed engineering … acquisition of the furin site would be highly compatible with the continued passage of virus in tissue culture.”
Both routes — direct insertion of the cleavage site or tissue culture — would mean that the virus came from a lab.
The conferees were clearly aware of the possibility that the virus had originated in the Wuhan lab. “So I think it becomes a question of how do you put all this together,” Farzan wrote, “whether you believe in this series of coincidences, what you know of the lab in Wuhan, how much could be in nature — accidental release or natural event?
“I am 70:30 or 60:40,” he said, meaning he thought lab origin considerably more likely than not.
You might think that the senior administrators present at the conference would have rushed to investigate the startling inference that their expert advisers had drawn. But just one day after the teleconference at which his experts explained why they thought the virus seemed manipulated, Collins complained about the damage such an idea might cause.
“The voices of conspiracy will quickly dominate, doing great potential harm to science and international harmony,” he wrote on Feb. 2, 2020, according to the new emails.
Even after the March 2020 Nature Medicine article, which made the natural-origin theory the mainstream view, Collins still fretted that the lab-leak idea had not been sufficiently suppressed. “Wondering if there is something NIH can do to help put down this very destructive conspiracy,” he emailed Fauci on April 16.
Fauci was less concerned. “I would not do anything about this right now,” he replied the next day. “It is a shiny object that will go away in times.”
For many months, it did just that. Natural emergence remained the only possibility on the table in the scientific establishment and mainstream media.
Truth about gain-of-function
But the lab-leak theory gained in plausibility as more facts emerged about the research NIAID was funding at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The program followed a debate among virologists as to how far one should go in enhancing a virus’ abilities in the lab in order to study its properties.
Collins and Fauci were proponents of “gain-of-function” research, as it is blandly known. “Important information and insights can come from generating a potentially dangerous virus in the laboratory,” they wrote in the Washington Post in 2011.
Some virologists questioned whether the possible gains were worth the substantial risks. But Collins and Fauci prevailed over the doubters, and in 2014 they began supporting a program of manipulating SARS-related viruses in Wuhan. Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York, managed the program, using NIH money to fund research by Shi Zhengli, the chief expert on coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
As we know from EcoHealth’s grant applications to the NIAID, Shi collected many types of coronaviruses from wild bats and took them back to her lab. There, she manipulated the viruses, principally by taking the gene for the spike protein of one virus and inserting it into the genome of another. The stated goal of this research was to find out how close the wild viruses might be to jumping to humans. To this end, she tested the novel viruses in humanized mice — animals genetically engineered to carry in their airways the proteins that the virus targets. The process adapts the virus to be capable of attacking live humans, even though this is not the intent.
Besides adding novel spike proteins, Shi’s manipulations may well have included insertion of a furin cleavage site. EcoHealth applied for a grant in 2018 for research that proposed to “introduce appropriate human-specific cleavage sites” into SARS-like coronaviruses. Though this grant application, submitted to an agency of the Defense Department, was turned down, Shi’s research team was clearly aware of the technique and may well have conducted such experiments with other funds. It is common practice for researchers to test out experimental techniques before applying for the grant in which they will be used.
The Andersen group’s detection of the furin cleavage site on Jan. 31, 2020, was a plausible basis for suspecting that SARS-CoV2 was not a natural virus. It’s an enduring puzzle as to why they then ruled out this possibility a mere four days later. There is thus far no counterargument in the public record. Farzan, the one member among Andersen and his three colleagues who did not sign the Nature Medicine article, declined an email request to discuss the episode.
However, Garry said in an email response that his remarks about the furin cleavage site in the emails discussed in the House committee’s Jan. 11 letter were just arguing a position and were taken out of context. “I favored the natural origin and had so for weeks, but the furin cleavage site was hard to rationalize.”
The Andersen group’s change of mind, Garry said, was not precipitate and had developed over several weeks for scientific reasons, not political pressure. A principal factor was “extremely important and compelling” data posted on Jan. 23 about a coronavirus found in pangolins. The pangolin virus’ receptor-binding domain, a critical feature that recognizes a target protein on the cell surface, was almost identical to that of SARS-CoV-2. This was a “big deal,” Garry said, because “if this feature was natural then very likely the whole virus was natural including the furin cleavage site.”
The argument is a little difficult to follow. Just because one part of the virus is natural, why does that show that someone had not inserted a genetically engineered furin cleavage site in another part?
Garry replied that engineering such a site would be a “very expensive, labor intensive, multiple month” process, and that in any case the Chinese researchers wouldn’t have used a virus so different from SARS1, the cause of a 2003 epidemic and their primary known focus of interest. But this is a hypothetical, not a clinching argument. If the Andersen group heard compelling new information about the virus’ origin between Jan. 31 and Feb. 4, Garry seems unable to say what it was.
Congress must keep digging
So what induced these virologists to such a radical change of view? “The Feb. 1, 2020, telecon sent a clear message to participants that Fauci and Collins regarded discussion of the lab leak possibility, even though plausible on scientific data, to be politically unacceptable and something that had to be blocked,” says Richard Ebright of Rutgers University, a molecular biologist and a leading critic of gain-of-function research.
Fauci oversees a large portion of funds available for virology research in the US. It is not unreasonable to suppose that virologists keen on continuing their careers would be very attentive to his wishes. Both Garry’s and Andersen’s labs receive large sums of money from the NIAID. “Telecon participants with current and pending grants controlled by Fauci and Collins could not have missed or misunderstood the clear message,” Ebright says.
The repudiation by Andersen, Garry and Holmes of their original conclusion, expressed in the Jan. 31, 2020, email was of enormous benefit to Collins and Fauci. Though primary responsibility for any lab leak would rest with Shi at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and with Chinese regulatory authorities, Collins and Fauci could share a portion of the blame for having funded gain-of-function research despite its obvious risks and then failing to ensure that grant recipients were taking all necessary precautions.
If there really was a conspiracy surrounding the origin of SARS-CoV-2, Congress should search for it — first, in the still-closed records of the National Institutes of Health and the EcoHealth Alliance. Congress then needs to ask scientists free of outside pressures or conflicts to reassess the probable origin of a virus that has now killed some 5 million people worldwide.
Nicholas Wade is a science writer and author who has worked at Nature, Science, and the New York Times. Excerpted with permission from City Journal.
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